Thursday, May 4, 2000

A Poem of Force

One of the lovely things about life here in Classics Corner is that we can nearly always find some common thread between the disconnected ideas ravaging our pathetic, bewildered brain.

At the moment, for instance, we are attempting to establish a connection between the Independent Review of the 1999 WTO Conference Disruptions in Seattle Washington, which helpfully appeared in our mailbox this afternoon, and Simone Weil’s brilliant World War II essay on the Iliad as a poem of force.

The Independent Review concludes that Seattle’s response to the WTO demonstrations lacked adequate planning and ignored obvious warning signs. To this, we can only yawn, mutter “No shit Sherlock,” and go on with our pedantic little lives.

The report goes on to say that competent law enforcement would have infiltrated the left, established strategic zones of control at the expense of free speech, and made as many pre-emptive arrests as possible, with particular attention to those pesky Anarchist squatters. In short, they say police should have exercised much more force from the start.

The authors of the report see their evaluation as a blueprint of sorts for what may be a new era of civil unrest. Those familiar with recent events in Washington, DC know the lessons of Seattle have already been applied, civil rights be damned.

Simone Weil was also preoccupied with events of her day, and warned that the naked and extreme force of Hitler rested upon innate human tendencies. It is unsafe, she said, to consign the possibility of barbarism to history.

Force, says Weil, is much more useful than class in understanding the essential nature of the world, and the Iliad, once we accept that the poem reveals something about ourselves, is “the purest and loveliest of mirrors.”

Weil memorably describes force as that “which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” Through force, the power of life becomes suspended, or even inert. People become objects.

But force is also somewhat illusory. In the Iliad, no one has the monopoly on violence. Force is “on loan from fate,” and the tables continually turn. This means, says Weil, that “the strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this.” In this, we find reason for hope.

Yet, there is an arrogance of power that believes force will always prevail. This, as Hector found while alone outside the Trojan gate, is a mistake. Life is unpredictable.

There is a moment, in the interval between the impulse and the act, says Weil, where justice can exist if we so choose. The destructive momentum of force undermines that moment. Achilles, for example, does not “choose life” when a disarmed enemy spreads his arms wide to beg for mercy. He is drawn to death, and plunges his sword into the supplicant’s neck without reflection.

The logic of force is to dehumanize. Who can forget the image of the teenage kid backing away from the stormtrooper, arms out wide. He is kicked in the balls and shot point blank in the chest with a rubber bullet.

There is no reflection here; just shortsighted arrogance. This is what people do when the precious moment between the impulse and the act no longer exists.

In Seattle, the mentally ill black man skips dangerously down the street and the cop drops him dead with one shot.

Force. It’s so easy. So corrupting. So present.

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